8:47 PM CDT, August 7, 2012
Almost two months remain in the season andA.J. Pierzynskialready has a career high in home runs. Does that surprise you?
Pierzynski insists he's not surprised.
He says he called this shot during a spring training conversation with former Twins teammate Doug Mientkiewicz, who now is a hitting coach in the Dodgers system. They roomed together in Arizona, and Pierzynski says he told him one night that he could feel a special season coming.
"I told him, 'If I get enough at-bats I'm going to hit 20 home runs,' '' Pierzynski said Tuesday. "He's been around. He knew what I was talking about. It was just something I found, something I was feeling. I thought I would be able to keep it, and I have.''
Lots of things have gone right for the first-place White Sox. But a vintage performance from their 35-year-old catcher ranks at the very top of the list for me.
Pierzynski went into the middle game of the Royals series hitting .293 with 21 home runs and 62 RBIs, on a pace that would get him to 30-plus homers and 90-plus RBIs. Those are huge numbers from a guy who always gets dirty behind the plate.
"I don't know a lot of teams that are good and don't have a good catcher,'' manager Robin Ventura said.
The White Sox have had a good one since 2005, when Pierzynski arrived from Minnesota via San Francisco. They almost let him leave after 2010, but general manager Ken Williams and assistant Rick Hahn got a two-year, $8 million deal done in December.
Another round of free agency is coming, and the Sox shouldn't count on getting a bargain this time around. Pierzynski, who has received one 10th place MVP vote in his career, should finish in the top five this fall if he remains such a huge cog on a playoff team.
Pierzynski is happy in Chicago but remembers how he was left twisting in the wind after 2010. This time around, it sounds like somebody is going to have to show him the money.
That could be in the form of an extension during the season or bidding against other teams after the season.
"You'll have to ask Kenny and Jerry (Reinsdorf) that,'' Pierzynski said. "In 2007, we got an extension done in two or three days. We can get one done if they want to. Everybody knows what I think about the White Sox … But obviously, it's got to be the right contract. I'm not going to just take it. I won't take something that's not fair. I'm not going to give up the world to stay here … I've already moved out of my house here once.''
Barring a change in the White Sox's strategy, there won't be any talks until after the season. Then Pierzynski's situation will be addressed along with six other veterans whose fate will be decided in free agency or through club options (Jake Peavy, Gavin Floyd, Kevin Youkilis, Francisco Lirano, Brett Myers and Orlando Hudson).
Historically catchers have had a hard time getting paid like players at first base, shortstop and other positions. The risk of injury has outweighed the institutional understanding of their value. But Pierzynski notes a shift in the market.
"One good thing has happened,'' he said. "Yadier Molina, (Joe) Mauer, (Miguel) Montero, they got really good contracts. People are starting to realize the value of catchers.''
Mauer's $184 million deal with the Twins was a freak happening related to timing and geography as much as his tremendous hitting skills. But the Molina (five-year, $75 million) and Montero (five year, $60 million) deals with the Cardinals and Diamondbacks were driven by the standard marketplace.
Pierzynski can't compare himself to those guys, who are 30 and 29, respectively. But thanks to his work with White Sox coaches and the training staff, he, too, is playing like he's in the prime of his career.
"I'll play as long as I can,'' he said. "Physically, I'm as good as I've ever been.''
Pierzysnki said strength coach Allen Thomas and trainers Herm Schneider and Brian Ball have had him following a program that makes him feel "as good as I did when I was 25.'' He's never felt better as a hitter, and he credits that to work he did with former hitting coach Greg Walker and assistant hitting coach Mike Gellinger last season, after a 2010 season in which he sometimes felt lost at the plate.
He says the change involves "timing, balance, general body feeling and trying easier … easy is better.'' Pierzynski started getting results with the altered approach last summer, but the Royals' Bruce Chen broke his right wrist with a pitch Aug. 12, forcing him onto the disabled list for the first time in his career. He returned in September, but the feeling didn't really return until the offseason, when he was working out with his high school baseball team in Orlando.
Pierzynski has carried that feeling through spring training and four months of the season, and still feels the difference. It's the new normal, and White Sox fans are getting used to it. Here's hoping they'll still be watching it in October, and beyond.
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